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20TH CENTURY FOX

MOVIE INFO
Synopsis:
James Mason delivers a strong performance in this fascinating portrait of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. In the early 1940s, Rommel's juggernaut Afrika Korps dominated North Africa. But as the tide turned and he came to the painful realization that his Fuhrer, to whom he had sworn allegiance, was destroying Germany, his ingrained sense of duty pushed him into a conspiracy against Hitler. Co-starring Jessica Tandy as Rommel's wife and Cedric Hardwicke as another anti-Hitler conspirator, The Desert Fox is an intimate look at one of the most respected military tacticisms of modern times.

Director:
Henry Hathaway
Cast:
James Mason, Cedric Hardwicke, Jessica Tandy, Luther Adler, Everett Sloane
Writing Credits:
Nunnally Johnson, based on the book by Desmond Young

MPAA:
Not Rated.

DVD DETAILS
Presentation:
Fullscreen 1.33:1
Audio:
English Digital Mono
Spanish Digital Mono
Subtitles:
English, Spanish
Closed-captioned

Runtime: 88 min.
Price: $14.98
Release Date: 5/20/2003

Bonus:
• Trailers.


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RELATED REVIEWS


The Desert Fox (1951)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 1, 2003)

Although most American movies uniformly regard German soldiers from World War II as evil, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel got more even-handed treatment. 1970’s Patton depicted Rommel as the consummate military tactician, and 1951’s The Desert Fox went even further in its positive view of the man.

Fox starts with a look at a November 1941 British commando raid that fails to kill its unnamed target. From there, we see British soldiers in Africa and learn that they regard Rommel as “superhuman”. The flick leaps to June 1942, where we see Rommel’s forces capture Lt. Col. Desmond Young (himself) of the Indian Army. Young narrates the film and then flips forward past Rommel’s death to discuss official Nazi explanations of that event and Young’s attempts to research what really happened to the field marshal.

Next the movie jumps again back to October 1942, where we see the Battle of El Alamein. Problems there require Rommel (James Mason) to return to the front despite an illness. The German forces encounter trauma due to depleted supplies, but Hitler orders no retreat with the command “victory or death”. Rommel tears up this document and the Allies capture many of the troops, though the field marshal himself doesn’t become a prisoner since he’d headed back to Germany for more medical attention.

Back in the Fatherland, we see Rommel in the hospital and also meet his wife Lucie (Jessica Tandy) as well as his son Manfred (William Reynolds) and friend Dr. Karl Stroelin (Cedric Hardwicke). They discuss the rude way in which Hitler dressed down Rommel. This sets up the possibility that some regard the Fuehrer as an obstacle to German success and that some forces may need to remove him.

The movie then leaps to late 1943 as we examine German fortifications to halt the expected Allied landing on the Atlantic coast. Rommel indicates his opposition to Hitler’s choices in that regard. While the two chat, Stroelin again indicates hints of anti-Hitler conspiracies, but Rommel resists these possibilities in early 1944.

We see the failures of the Germans to halt the June 1944 D-Day assaults and we finally start to head toward the plot to remove Hitler. Rommel tries to reason with the Fuehrer (Luther Adler) but he gets nowhere so he casts his lot more firmly with the conspirators. The rest of the film examines what happens with them and the rest of Rommel’s life.

The Desert Fox came as a big disappointment to me. I’ve long maintained an interest in subjects related to World War II, and I eagerly greeted the opportunity to get a good biographical look at one of that era’s most noted combatants. Unfortunately, Fox felt more like Hollywood melodrama than historical drama.

Admittedly, I didn’t expect documentary-style realism, but the broad hamminess of Fox made it difficult to take at times. Much of the problem stemmed from the casting. Mason felt totally inappropriate for Rommel. I’ll admit that part of that occurred due to his accent. I don’t think that actors always have to utilize accurate voices to play roles foreign to them; heck, Sean Connery pulled off a Russian sub commander fairly well in The Hunt For Red October despite his thick Scottish brogue.

However, the accents of Fox actively distracted me. It offered a mélange of intonations, and you’d often find American, British and central European voices all as Germans in the same scene. This made it tough to suspend disbelief and accept the actors as Nazis. The different personalities blended poorly, and this made it difficult to accept them as all part of the same group.

But it wasn’t just Mason’s voice that made him work poorly as Rommel. For lack of a better explanation, he simply seemed too British. He failed to deliver the bluntness that would better fit the role, and he came across as somewhat too proper and prissy to work as Rommel. Mason also offered a one-note take on the part. Essentially Rommel seemed little more than righteously indignant throughout the movie. Though we only saw him a few times, Karl Michael Vogler’s performance as the field marshal in Patton much more closely fit my notion of Rommel; Mason seemed terribly wrong for the part.

Actually, despite the brevity of the Rommel sequences in that flick, Patton appeared to give us a much stronger portrait of the man than did Fox. The earlier film essentially just came across as melodramatic claptrap. Oddly, it told us of all Rommel’s great achievements, but we never got to see any of them. It seemed weird to get a story about a great warrior but we never watched an actual battle. Perhaps this occurred due to budget limitations, but it harmed the verisimilitude of Fox nonetheless.

I found that the pacing of Fox worked poorly as well. The movie really flitted around from time to time badly during the opening minutes, and this gave it a lack of grounding that ultimately harmed it. The film went with more of a conventional chronological attitude after it set up its premise, but the damage was done, and it still sped through events too rapidly.

What’s up with that early exposition anyway? I never quite figured out why the filmmakers bothered to spend so much time with useless set-up to establish Desmond Young and his cause. Perhaps they thought this would make the movie seem more factual and like a documentary, but it didn’t. Instead, it just created a more disjointed piece that seemed like it didn’t know where it wanted to go.

Frankly, The Desert Fox was a mess. It made Rommel look more involved in a plot to remove Hitler than he actually was, and it painted a flaccid portrayal of a noted military man. I won’t even get into how strange it seemed to watch a movie in which a Nazi was essentially treated like a hero, but I can’t say that I cared for that element of it either. I’d love to see a quality take on the life of Field Marshal Rommel, but The Desert Fox offered a poor and goofy examination of the man.


The DVD Grades: Picture C+ / Audio C- / Bonus D-

The Desert Fox appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall the movie looked surprisingly attractive for a piece this old, but it suffered from too many problems to earn a grade above a “C+”.

Sharpness varied. Most of the film seemed nicely detailed and well defined, but some problems occurred. Wide shots came across as moderately soft, a factor exacerbated by some noticeable edge enhancement at times. These haloes became rather prominent on various occasions and they created definite distractions. I also detected a few examples of jagged edges and moiré effects; for instance, Stroelin’s tie shimmered.

Print flaws appeared average for a film of this vintage. Grain looked somewhat heavier than I expected, and a mix of other defects cropped up at times. I noticed various examples of scratches, marks, blotches, specks and grit throughout the film. Unfortunately, these intensified as the movie progressed. The first act looked surprisingly clean, but the various issues appeared heavier as the film continued. They never became excessive, but they caused occasional distractions. The flick also seemed slightly wobbly at times.

On the positive side, Fox boasted very strong black levels. Those tones came across as quite rich and dense, and lot-light shots were nicely discernible and distinct. Contrast looked solid throughout the movie. Really, without the edge enhancement and print concerns, The Desert Fox would have offered a terrific picture. It remained perfectly acceptable for a film made more than 50 years ago, in any case.

Unfortunately, the monaural soundtrack of The Desert Fox fared less well. The mix utilized a “broad mono” experience, which meant that the audio didn’t emanate solely from the center speaker. Actually, the number of speakers in use depended on my receiver’s settings. When I turned on the surround, the audio mostly came from the front center, but I heard definite echoes from the other four channels as well. With the surround setting deactivated, the material came solely from the front right and left speakers, but this caused problems related to balance; the imaging didn’t place material as close to the center as it should, and this became a definite distraction.

If I ignored these coding choices, the audio seemed acceptable. Speech appeared clean and intelligible throughout the movie, as I detected no issues related to edginess or other problems. Music was a little flat but the score generally came across as reasonably vibrant and clear. Effects also were concise and distinctive enough for material of this vintage. They betrayed no real problems with distortion and offered decent dynamic range when I factored in the age of the recording. I heard a little hum and some light crackling at times, but otherwise the track seemed to lack source defects. Without the distracting lack of monaural focus, the audio of The Desert Fox might have made it into “B” territory, but as it stood, the track earned a “C-“.

The Desert Fox comes with only a few extras. We get two of the film’s theatrical trailers. We find the flick’s US ad plus the same clip with Spanish text and narration. In addition, the Fox War Classics domain presents promos for five other DVDs that street the same day as The Desert Fox. It provides trailers for 13 Rue Madeleine, The Blue Max, The Enemy Below, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and Sink the Bismarck!.

I looked forward to The Desert Fox before I watched it, which made the result a tremendous disappointment. A disorganized and poorly executed film, Fox made a legendary military tactician look like a prissy bore, and it almost totally failed to convey the import of this life and career. The DVD’s picture and sound were fairly average, and the disc included only a few trailers as extras. If you like The Desert Fox, you’ll want to pick up the DVD; it didn’t provide the film well, but the presentation remained solid enough for fans. However, I’d definitely shy others away from this silly flick.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.9 Stars Number of Votes: 20
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